“Filmmaking is like a secret scheme to see how slyly you can guide the audience through the story without bringing attention to your bag of tricks, and I am an accomplice in this endeavor. Every project is different, and it is a joy to experience something unique each time. As I look through the viewfinder and see the object of focus through the lens, there are moments when I feel I am completely synchronized with them. It is a small thing, but those moments are what energize me. Part of my job is to be creative. We must collaborate with other departments and always find the best path for creating quality images, regardless of the budget.”
A four-time nominee of the Japanese Academy, Takeshi Hamada, JSC won the Best Cinematography Award from the organization for his work on Departures (Okuribito), which also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009. His other acclaimed credits include Blood and Bones (Chi to hone), When the Last Sword is Drawn (Mibu Gishi Den), and Made in Japan (Bokura wa minna ikiteiru), also a Best Cinematography winner at the Mainichi Film Awards.
A Conversation with Takeshi Hamada, JSC
Question: What do you love about what you do?
Hamada: Essentially, our job always remains the same … but every project is very different from the other, and it is a joy for me to experience something different every time. In Japan, the director of photography operates the camera, mostly looking through the viewfinder. When I see the object of a scene thorough the lens, there are moments when I feel that I am completely synchronized with the scene. It may sound simple but these moments are thrilling to me.
Q: Where were you born? Tell us about your childhood.
Hamada: I was born in 1951 in Iwamizawa City in Hokkaido Island, located on the north end of Japan. My father was a corporate worker and transferred several times within the island. I don’t know exactly why, but we did not have a television at home until I graduated from high school. Probably because my parents wanted us kids to read books. We had lots of books including Japanese and Western literature. In high school, I was already into cinema. Our family was living in Sapporo, the biggest city on the island, and I often commuted to an art house cinema instead of going to school. I really loved French films by (Francois) Truffaut, (Jean-Luc) Godard and (Claude) Lelouch.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to become a cinematographer and what was the motivation or reason for the decision?
Hamada: At the age of 20, I went to Tokyo and entered Meiji University, School of Arts and Letters. I took a part-time job to pay for my tuition. My core group of friends was from cinema circles of different colleges. We aligned with four actors from an underground theatre company and decided to go on a stage tour for a month, in the middle of second semester of freshman year. When I came back to Tokyo, I was fired from my part-time job. In a hangout bar, I happened to talk to the bar owner about my situation. She had connections at OP Eiga, a multi-business studio, and introduced me for a camera assistant position.
Q: What experiences from those early days still influence your work today?
Hamada: Susumu Ono (JSC) was the one who hired me at OP Eiga, and he preferred a layman like me rather than people with some experience. I learned a lot very quickly. Ono-san took very good care of me with work on many TV dramas and features. Ono-san is still my mentor and I have great personal respect to him.
Q: Are there other cinematographers whose work you admire?
Hamada: Takao Saito (JSC) is one of Akira Kurosawa’s DPs, and I have assisted Saito-san on several features and television dramas. He’s different from other cinematographers. His way of thinking, approach and view to a film were very level headed, yet he was not afraid of trying new things. He was also an excellent camera operator. … Shinsaku Himeda (nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar® in 1971 for Tora! Tora! Tora!) is my idol. The images he shot still excite me to this day.
Q: How did you make the transition to professional work?
Hamada: I got a job at Mifune Production. Back then, the 2nd assistant cameramen were around 24 years old. I was just 21, and if I revealed my true age, it would have set senior-junior relationships. So, I fudged on my age by three years, and dropped out from the university. I was promoted to 1st assistant cameraman at the age of 24 (they thought I was 27), and worked on hundreds of dramas, movies of the week and a few feature films. … In 1980, I worked with director Azuma Morisaki on a six-hour drama about Genghis Khan. One day, we were shooting a mob scene with 50 horses in China. A and B cameras were covering long shots from hills and I was on C camera, which was set on the ground toward the mob of horses coming and passing by. We were short of camera crew and didn’t have a focus puller for C camera, so I picked one of the sound recording assistants and taught him how to shift focus. The 50 horses started running toward my direction, and the cameras started rolling. Then the horses unexpectedly branched into two groups in the middle. I did not realize what was going on because my view was limited by the zoom lens. All of a sudden, I was sandwiched by the two groups of horses, and they ran over the camera and me. Luckily, they did not step on my head or torso, so there were no serious injuries! My focus puller had already run away even before the horses approached. Morisaki was looking at me from the hill, and he thought I was dead. But I picked up myself quickly and resumed full height from a cloud of sand as if nothing happened. I don’t know if that was the reason, but the director made me his DP for his next title.
Q: How do you perceive the role of the cinematographer?
Hamada: In Japan, it is often said that the cinematographer is someone who supports the director like he would his wife. And I disagree with the saying. To me, filmmaking is like a plot, and how slyly you can guide the audience through the story without them being aware of it. Thus, filmmakers are like a secret group, and I want to be the finest accomplice in the group. I believe it is part of my job to look at the entire production, be creative, and collaborate with other departments to use the budget without compromising quality. And when I feel that we are getting more than enough, and budget could be better used in other departments to make the film better, I suggest that to the producer and director.
Q: How do you design the look of a project?
Hamada: I design the look through the pre-production process, including location hunting, costume testing, and discussions with the director.
Q: Can you give us an example of how you approached a particular project that was creatively satisfying to you?
Hamada: When I started my career, I didn’t have the determination to become a cameraman, but I became one, like a matter of course. So I think I always had some fear or doubt about how good I was going to be in this occupation. But after shooting two very challenging films, back to back – The Triple Cross and Made in Japan – I felt I had nothing to be afraid of anymore. I became very confident that I could work with any director on any project around the globe. Looking back now, those two projects gave me incredible energy to run in the next 10 years. When the Last Sword is Drawn and Blood and Bones, were also two films that revitalized me. I think that for filmmakers, the only way we get ourselves energized is to work on really good projects; otherwise we start feeling out of breath. And as I become older, I get discharged much quicker than I used to! So now it is more important for me to work on good projects and very carefully do the best job I can on each title.
Q: How have advancements in technology changed the way you shoot a project?
Hamada: Not much. For example, the camera is just a tool to me. I almost always shoot on film because I am familiar with it. Digital post-production is today’s standard, and as such technology evolves, we should always take advantage of it. What I don’t understand is that some people try to achieve a film look with digital cameras. Why not shoot on film from the beginning? Film has its uniqueness, and when we choose media, we should make the best use of it by maximizing its characteristics.
Q: Are people more visually literate than they used to be?
Hamada: I think people have become visually regenerated. For example, I doubt if watching content on a 3.7-inch display would enhance people’s visual literature. When you watch a movie on a big screen in a movie theater, it lets you imagine things outside of the screen. And we, as filmmakers, make movies thinking about those things that are not shown on the screen too. I don’t think 3.7-inch displays or tablets can stimulate viewers’ imagination the way big screens do. Some filmmakers may be making films with compact personal media output in mind, but the filmmakers I work with do not think this way. We still prefer film for exhibition.